It may not be easy to imagine, but if you missed game one of the Cleveland Cavaliers versus the Toronto Raptors series (and you would be very fortunate if you did) you would not know that the 116-105 Cavs victory actually flattered the Raptors. Throughout the game, the Dinos were one step slow on defence and not quite on the same page on offence. In typical Raptor fashion, they never stopped battling and at one point had even battled back from an 18 point deficit to come within 2 at 41-39. Unfortunately, the momentum did not last long as in less than a minute later, the Cavs lead was back up to double digits.
One gets the impression that the Raptors could very well be playing catch-up this entire series. It seems eerily similar to when you are playing against a disgruntled, older sibling. You know, that older brother that was TOLD by mom to play with you but they would rather be somewhere else. So they start the game, push you around and score on you whenever they want. They then try all the dunks and three point shots because they know you can’t do anything to stop them. Then when they feel you have had enough (which loosely translates into they are afraid you will tell mom) they give you the ball and let you score. They dangle that carrot in your face making you think that this time, just this one time, you may be able to beat them. They then take the ball away, laugh in your face and take a big lead again. Dear Raptors players let me introduce you to your older siblings the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Truth is, one rarely beats their older sibling when they try to play their style and that’s exactly what Toronto did. In the first round, Cleveland and the Indiana Pacers each scored over 100 point in all 4 games and yet the Pacers were swept. In their six game series victory over Milwaukee, not once did both teams score over 100 points in the same game. Game one therefore was all about Cleveland enforcing their style of play and that spells trouble for the Dinos. So the lesson to be learned is don’t get into a shooting match with the Cavs because you will lose. Period.
The only chance Toronto has is to a) slow down the Cavs but also b) increase their own tempo. It sounds weird doesn’t it? But if you just look at the first quarter, that’s all you really need to know. Toronto had 5 turnovers in that quarter which allowed Cleveland to get easy transition baskets. This led the Cavs to have not 1 but 2, 10-0 runs in that quarter and a 12 point, 30-18 lead. Stopping the turnovers and easy transition baskets slows down the Cavs. Yes that is easier said than done, but certainly doable. The problem though is that is only the first part of slowing them down.
The next step to defeating the Cavaliers does require a change in defensive philosophy however. Throughout the year, the premise was to pack the paint and protect it. Don’t allow the easy baskets and force them to shoot from outside. The problem though is that this team can shoot very well from outside because they get so many open looks. The Raptors are allowing the Cavs to blow past them from the perimeter and then they drive to an easy basket or shoot it back out for an open three. Therefore perimeter defence needs to get much, much better. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll I am looking at all of you. They have not been strong enough, specially at the start of games, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are just too good of a team for the Raptors to spot them any early points.
If the Raptors can tighten up their perimeter defence they may be able to force Cleveland into turnovers. One thing we know about the Cavs is that for the most part, they don’t tend to run back on defence. This is where Toronto needs to speed up. Turnover or rebound and they should immediately be thinking about running down the court before the Cavs can get set on defence. Despite scoring over 100 points, the Raptors struggled in scoring. They can certainly improve their offensive statistics by picking up the tempo during transition but it all starts with being effective on defence.
Over the next few games, it will be interesting to see how the Raptors react after getting battered in game one. This team has had a number of difficult stretches throughout the year and whenever you think they are down, they manage to fight back. What is worrisome is that just fighting back, as it is with an older sibling, will not be enough this time. This time, they not only have to assert themselves and believe that they are equal, they need to convince the Cavaliers as well.
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